Graduate School of Environmental Studies



May 31, 2023 Mapping the conflict between farming and biodiversity


Figure. The international trade flow of cocoa for top producers and top consumers shows the conservation priority of land on which the cocoa is grown.

Food is one of society’s great moral quandaries. Its production pushes many species to the brink of extinction and the grazing of land that destroys ecosystems. For governments, industry, and communities to effectively balance agricultural needs with environmental needs, however, quantitative information is required. Researchers in Japan provide such data by combining conservation priority maps with trade data across nearly 200 countries and 50 agricultural products. Their findings, as reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, show which commodities have the propensity to be grown in regions with high priority for conservation and are expected to assist with policies that protect biodiversity while maintaining global food trade.

For many decades now, upon realizing the alarming damage our lifestyles are causing to the atmosphere and water supplies, nations and territories have implemented policies that sustain economic growth while minimizing irreversible harm to the environment. Similar actions are needed for the use of land in agricultural production, but there is comparably little understanding of the impact consumer demand has for various food and other farmed commodities.

“Food production remains the main cause of biodiversity loss,” explained one of the authors of the study, Associate Professor Dr. Keiichiro Kanemoto. “However, there is a lack of comprehensive and systematic data on which products and which countries contribute the most to this loss. We spatially overlapped agricultural land and species habitats to identify agricultural commodities with the most risk.”

The study divided areas for agriculture into four conservation priorities and correlated individual agricultural commodities to their production on land of different priority levels. The researchers found that about a third of land use occurs in areas of high conservation priority, whereas less than one quarter occurs in areas of low priority. Notably, commodities that are large staples of food consumption, such as beef, rice, and soybeans, tended to be produced in high conservation priority areas. Yet other key staples, such as barley and wheat, were frequently sourced from low priority areas.

The study further shows the effects of international trade. Coffee and cocoa are primarily grown in high conservation priority areas in equatorial nations, but the reason is mostly to satisfy the demands of richer nations like the United States and members of the European Union, who have a high appetite for these two commodities. At the global level, its high demand for multiple commodities makes China the biggest influencer of food production in high priority conservation areas.

Furthermore, the type of land used for a commodity depended on the nation in which it is produced. For example, beef and soybeans are grown in high conservation priority areas in Brazil but not in North America. Similarly, wheat is grown in lower conservation priority areas in Eastern Europe than in Western Europe.

Moreover, the nation to which the commodity is exported correlated with the type of land used for its production. The United States, European Union, China, and Japan all depend heavily on trade partners to satisfy their demand for beef and dairy. However, more than one quarter of the beef and dairy Japan consumes comes from high conservation priority areas, while for the other regions that number is closer to ten percent.

“That suggests there are opportunities to preserve supply changes without compromising current consumption patterns,” said Kanemoto.

Presently, many nations are aware of the stress caused by cattle, soybean, and palm oil on high conservation priority areas. Notably, the study shows that other commodities, including corn, sugarcane, and rubber, also cause undue stress and deserve more attention in policymaking.

“Our spatial approach is a valuable complementary method with other standard techniques to evaluate the impact agriculture has on biodiversity. The knowledge gained from our study should help reduce the trade-off many nations associate with agriculture production and environmental protection,” said Kanemoto.

The research was conducted by a team of researchers from the Research Institute for Humanity and Nature (RIHN), the Forestry and Forest Products Research Institute (FFPRI), Tohoku University, and several other institute.